Chaya Rosen is the author of two books of poetry, due to be reissued by Kasva Press later this year. She is also the founder of Art and Writings of Destruction and Repair, a creative forum for children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. Today she speaks with Yael Shahar, author of Returning.
Chaya: It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to discuss Returning. The book has been a topic of many discussions on the group Art and Writing of Destruction and Repair. Many people have questions about Ovadya, specifically his name and the role it plays in his quest for atonement. I know in Hebrew Ovadya means Servant of G-d. Can you tell us more?
Ovadya does indeed have a very conflicted relationship with his name, mostly because of its meaning. He starts out referring to himself only as “Alex,” the nickname he acquired in Birkenau. When pressed to use his real name, he refuses. “For a long time I have not dreamed of using that name,” he says. “It is like a beautiful garment, which I can’t wear because I’m too worn down to fit into it and too filthy to avoid soiling it.”
Ovadya’s refusal to use his given name is indicative of the way trauma and guilt alienate us from ourselves. His attempt to reclaim his name is part of his journey back to the better part of himself—a true journey of T’shuvah.
I note that you started out with only Ovadya’s name on the cover, rather than Yael’s. But Yael’s story is also there in the text. What led to this decision, and what changed your mind about it?
I wrestled with this a fair bit before the book came out. I felt that the name on the cover really had to be Ovadya’s and not mine. Recently, I added my name as well, on the advice of a publicist, who pointed out that I had built a brand with my writing on various forums, and that I shouldn’t squander that as an aid to marketing the book.
Still, Ovadya is really the main author, even if I did the actual writing. Not only is the narrative voice his, but also, it’s his desperate drive to bear witness that drives the story. Yael struggles with the aftermath of trauma–the flashbacks, the need to tell, and the difficulty in evading memory. But Ovadya struggles with deeper issues: is there meaning in a world where God appears to champion evil. “Omnipotence and malice are a frightening combination,” he says.
These are the questions that he asks. Not how should we live in such a world, but, is it worth living at all? Can we reconcile our own present happiness with the existence of hell on earth?
These are difficult questions to formulate and perhaps impossible to answer. But the lack of answers does not absolve us from the duty to ask. Returning is an attempt to ask these kinds of questions in situ, as it were. The fact that the book begins and ends with Ovadya’s story is itself an answer—or perhaps a meta answer—it’s an example of how life often provides us with answers even if we don’t always recognize them as such at the time.
So that leads to another question—how did the book come to be written? It seems that one of the commonalities between Yael and Ovadya is that both of them struggle with the ability to speak about traumatic memory. What happened that allowed it all to get out onto the page?
It’s one of those times when the question is its own answer…. The writing is itself the solution to the inability to write!
The writing was a path toward healing—both physical and spiritual. Ovadya’s story had been a part of my inner world for so long that it was eating me out from within, begging to be told. Once started, the process took on a momentum of its own, consuming six years of almost full-time engagement.
By the way, this trend of questions being their own answers crops up a few times throughout the book. It’s one of the underlying truths of life, that we often don’t know that we know.
Think of Ovadya’s name. He can’t reclaim it because he feels that he betrayed it. “One who became a slave to the Germans can’t use a name that means ‘Servant of God’,” he says. But of course, the only way he can get out of slavery is to reclaim his name–the goal becomes the very means to achieve it.
One of the many layers of the book. It really doesn’t seem to fit into any particular genre. It reads like literary fiction, but it’s a true story. So how would you categorize Returning?
I’m not sure I have an answer to this one. No single genre quite fits. It is a story of recovery from trauma, of guilt and atonement, of the preservation of memory…. But most of all, it’s a story of God-wrestling in the timeless tradition of Ya’akov’s wrestling match with an un-named and un-namable entity on the banks of the Yabbok river. We’ve all crossed that river at one time or another, and most of us have wished we had some way to name what we faced there. But, like Ya’akov’s opponent, the apparition vanishes in the light of reason, leaving us both wounded and blessed…and forever changed.
Returning is a story of just such a transformation. As such, it defies genre-fication.
How would you sum up that transformation?
I would say that Returning is a story of the intersection of two worlds, each complete in its brokenness. My own experience forms part of the story, but the main voice is Ovadya’s from beginning to end. It is his voice that best conveys what it’s like to live with traumatic memory, with its odd juxtapositions of past and future. That sense comes through in the very language that Ovadya uses to describe his experience. He begins to describe the conditions of Birkenau and suddenly “was” gives way to “is”. “There” becomes “here”.
There is no way out of that loop, other than through it and out the other side. For Ovadya, this meant taking his case to a rabbi to judge, and the story of what happened as a result forms the bulk of the book. That search for justice and atonement was his path to healing. Telling his story was mine.
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss Returning. Each of your responses, to even just these few questions, could be the start of a whole new discussion. Do you plan to publish a Guideline that could be used by readers in Book Clubs or learning sessions?
Yes, I’ve put together two different types of reader’s guides. The first is a set of questions for readers to ponder as they progres through the book. Here’s the link. The second type of guide uses some of the dilemmas raised in the book as spring-boards for group discussion. I’ve used these as foundations for book launch events in the past, to good effect. An example can be found here. This is supplemented by Jewish sources that can serve as a basis for deeper learning. I’m currently preparing another such guide for an upcoming book event in Jerusalem, which will focus on Teshuvah and faith after the Holocaust. I would be happy to have input from readers for further topics of discussion. I can be reached at: email@example.com.